This William Finn musical is an odd choice for the Donmar Warehouse which has successfully revived Sondheim musicals like PASSION and other serious works like PARADE. Why haven't they produced the brilliant Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas work THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA? It is criminal that that fine work has not been seen in London. THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is a piece of fluff that is about a third too long for its material. Since few over here have any sense of Putnam County and the show's principal jokes don't really make a lot of comic sense on this side of the pond (the Korean girl who is sick of being the best, the child of a hippy commune, the daughter of gay dads), everything becomes cartoony. And everything about the production is overblown for the intimate space. The show is over-amplified -- far too loud -- and the cast works far too hard. One watches the sweat run down their faces as they force the thin material that might be more droll if underplayed a bit. The songs are occasionally clever, but forgettable. The best thing about the production was the design which converted the space into a replica of an American school gym. The usually Donmar audience benches were replaced downstairs by folding chairs and the banners and school paraphernalia continued in the circle. But why all the smoke? Was the school on fire? I enjoyed the show for the first hour. Unfortunately it went on for another forty minutes.
Both this production and COMPANY at the Southwark pipe the band in from an enclosed space. What's the point of having a live band if none of the sound of the band is live? One might as well do the show with a recording of the accompaniment. I know this practice goes back at least as far as CATS, but I go to the theatre for some semblance of live sound, particularly in a small space like the Donmar where amplification is unnecessary.
The big question is why the Donmar thought doing this very thin show was a good idea for them.
THE TWENTY-FIFTH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Donmar Warehouse. February 25, 2011.